Monday, April 25, 2011

The elements – Fire

I’ve spent a long period of my life in the presence of fire – Always been a dear friend, perhaps a little rowdy, sometimes a little annoying, but the dearest friend ever.

The urban environment makes fire something of a stranger, controlled flames from gas burners, smoking garbage piles, buildings on fire; the whole experience is rather negative. It’s as if fire is something people could do without if possible.

In the forest, in the mountains, it’s as important as water or air, something essential to survival. It’s often the center of all living : You start the day by lighting a fire, you spend time keeping it alive, fetching and chopping wood, and in the falling light, as it gets colder, you draw ever closer to the flames, stopping just short of embrace. You can sit for hours mesmerized by the flames, the coals, and the brief intense white glow from the coals when one of them died and turned to pure ash. White fluffy ash, preserving the shape of the coal it once was. When there’s a fire, everyone is welcome to come close, a great unifier.

In the winter, when you live in a house that’s not airtight, your back is always cold, while your fire facing front is too warm, there is no solution, you don’t want to turn your back to the fire, and there’s only so much warmth a shawl or something can give… it’s a strange feeling – Hot heaven in front and cold hell behind….

When you talk fire, you talk wood – Forget all that crap they tell you in camps and outdoors stuff – Fire making is rocket science (In fact most of the complexity with rockets is to keep the fire going nicely).

It’s not always that you have the luxury of paper scraps or kerosene and gasoline to start a flame – sometimes all you have is 3 matches in a slightly damp matchbox. You need to understand wood, to recognize its qualities by feeling it and smelling it, judge its character by breaking it. Every blow of an axe on a log, tells the wise man a tale of how it’s going to burn.

There is a poem called “Logs to burn” . Many versions of it float around, but the idea is the same.

Back in the mountains, we would scout the forest for low dried up branches of the Naareekh trees (related to the camphor tree), spicy smelling light wood, not very prone to getting soaked in the rain. When in doubt, get Naareekh.
In the rainy season, walking in the forest is not fun, since most paths get overgrown with 5 foot high stinging nettle plants – You may slash your way through them, but they will eventually get you with their little formic acid hypodermic thorns. Fortunately the river used to bring a huge number of gigantic logs.

Me and Naren would scout the river bank from the bridge, and take the trusty Sandvik log saw to the bank. Seven foot long with wicked dagger like teeth, we would make short work of three foot diameter logs - usually soft Himalayan Alder – god forbid trying to saw through a dry oak log that thick! They would all be waterlogged, sometimes green, sometimes half rotten, but you work with what you have. We’d take turns chopping the logs into quarters and eighths and stack them in piles to air dry. We’d need to collect a cord of wood at least, to pass through the winter, and this was the time to collect and season it.

The Tons river had a strange effect on the wooden logs it brought – When green logs get immersed in the water, they season in a different way – Oak logs would turn dark maroon, super hard, impossible to split, saw or do anything with. There were several such logs almost like fossils, gray from the outside, heavy and too dense to float away in the floods. Sometimes the gods would be kind and we’d get find fresher oak logs, nicely debarked by the water, hard and seasoned – If you spot a nice log, worth burning or sawing, you go and keep rocks on it, and the other villagers won’t touch it. It’s an honor system – like “I have dibs on this log” and no one violates this.

In the summers, inevitably one of the old Shireesh trees on our side of the mountain would dry up, looking like a white skeleton. We’d go along with the local kids and fell the dry tree - usually these trees would be hollow. Once I saw a really frightening sight – from one such hollow log fell a dried up and dead hornet, but what a hornet – it was deep orange with black stripes, about 5 inches long and the segments of its body as big as grapes. The thought that there could exist a nest full of these monsters anywhere still sends shivers down my spine.

Another time, a bat came right out of a tree as we sawed it and when Naren picked it up, it drew his blood – Fortunately he did not develop any vampire like qualities…

Every year, the locals had a custom of setting the dry grass on fire, the seven foot tall “Kusholi” grass was a pain to walk through when dry (when green too). It has these serrated edges that cut you like razor blades, although the cows have no problems chomping it down. After the snows, all this would dry up and the villagers would set it on fire, huge thirty feet high flames would race up the slopes throwing up carbonized strands of grass hundreds of feet high. The flames would be so big that you could not get within twenty yards of it, the searing heat eclipsing that of the sun itself.

Our side of the mountain was mostly grass and the occasional pine tree on rocky cliffs, and the flames would go on for days. Once I recall me and Naren walking back from Thatru at dusk, seeing only by the light cast from huge “garlands of fire” on our mountain across the valley. Eventually the atmosphere would get so smoky that it would inevitably rain.
After these fires and when the rain cleared the smoky air, the whole mountainside would appear jet black with charred clumps of grass roots. Soon however, the tender grass sprouts again and it’s a pleasant change, until the Kusholi regrows to its murderous sword like maturity. Once, several weeks after the fires, I went with my local chum Mimroo across the ridge and we saw a huge dry tree, hollowed, the entire interior of it was smoldering coal and the wind had kept it burning like an extra long cigar for weeks on end. It’s a strange effect, but I’ve noticed that most stones turn permanently reddish when they’re in a fire for a long time. No idea why it’s like that, but you can spot a place where a fire has been burning long, by examining the stones, even after the other clues have been washed away.

I could go on and on about bony white Lodahr wood, that smoldered with a greyish flame, hydrocarbon filled pine wood that blackened vessels no end, infamous bright yellow Tung wood and soft Teethrai that would cause mini explosions like fire crackers when you burned them, Sisaar and Baangil (willow), Khadik(hack-berry) and Eonr, Buras(rhododendron) and Imer (elm) – Each tree with its personality, its bark, the way it cuts, the way it splits, the way it burns, the smell, all full of character.

When a big old pine tree dies and dries out, the hydrocarbons in the sap tend to coagulate in the trunk, and for some reason, the innermost part of the trunk and the start of the branches turn into a sort of glassy saturated wood. It turns into a kind of translucent bright red, orange, pinkish purple even violet, and every stroke of the axe makes it squeeze out oil with a heady fragrance that you can smell from a distance when it’s exposed.

Once in a while, we and the local kids would scout around for such trees and gather this very valuable kind of wood – It’s essentially the caveman's gasoline substitute, this dense heavy and hard stuff (called Jhukti) will burn like crazy with a bright yellow flame for a long, long time. It can’t get waterlogged and it catches on fire very rapidly. The ideal fire starting device – You make a little tepee of wooden scraps, light your pencil thin stick of Jhukti and insert it inside and pretty soon you have a nice cheery flame going. The locals would burn this for lighting and damn well it smelt better than kerosene lamps.

Kerosene? Well it does work, but as ol’ Mimroo put it “Mitti thel to jaisa paani, bhuj jaata hai” – Meaning kerosene is like water, it snuffs out the fire – Actually true, throw an ounce of kero on a small fire and it makes it smoke out and doesn’t do any good. Even the Hollywood picture of how dangerous gasoline is – totally a myth – We once made a “Molotov cocktail”, lit it and threw it at a stone retaining wall, all we got for our trouble was a splash of gas (and broken glass) that dried up pronto.

If there’s fire, there is smoke and it is a horrible thing – It makes you cry, it makes you choke, gives you headaches and even stomach aches : Over time the roof gets coated with creosote (we didn’t have chimneys per se) and when the weather gets cold, water condenses on the metal sheet “ceiling” and drops yucky smelly black tarry drops down all over.

There is such a thing as too hot a fire. After a fire has been burning for hours and hours, sometimes the coals are in such quantity that they use up all the oxygen available – It feels stuffy and you feel light headed and whatever wood you add to the fire seems to not want to burn. Such times, the only option is to “reboot” the fire – you throw it all away (and douse the coals to reuse later) and start with fresh wood, make a nice leaping flame that will draft enough fresh air into the room.
Many a time we’d build a fire outside, heat up metal and go all medieval on it with a sledge hammer - something so fun about red hot steel, which tends to sparkle when wood or coal dust falls on it, a strange frictionless “ice skating” feel when you rub a piece of scrap wood across it, finally the climactic dunk into cold water to temper it and watching the water sizzle and boil like mad.

Tools of the trade, the trusty English chopping axe and the thick splitting axe, the Swedish tree saw, the long sickle shaped machete – The whole ritual of sharpening them honing with a whetstone, shaping the handles from delightful oak.

So often, trudging off to the forest, many times accompanied our handsome dog Bully, ropes on the shoulders, hunting for that next log, that next dead tree, saying “Hi” to the giant pine and “Yo” to the twisted oak, hacking at the nettles left and right, like a boss! Making a half quintal bundle of logs and branches, strapping them onto the back, the wobbly journey home, once more, and we’d do it again in two days.

Ah! Those were the days!

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